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New Zealand’s Biggest Year by Harry Boorman

New Zealand’s Biggest Year by Harry Boorman, is a riveting account of the biggest birding year in New Zealand’s history.

A Big Year is an informal competition among birdwatchers to see who can identify the largest number of species of birds by sight or sound within a single calendar year and within a specific geographic area. The point of difference in New Zealand is that while in other countries you can count the bird by its call alone, in New Zealand, it must be seen.

Harry Boorman, a Brit, and keen birder who had lived in New Zealand for eight years, chose New Zealand for his Big Year in 2021. He was determined to beat the previous record of 220 birds spotted by Brent Stephenson, in 2014.

Before long, Harry became suspicious that Dave Howes, a friend, and fellow birder, was also giving it a go. Dave denied it at first, but eventually, his cover was blown. Then it became a mighty competition between the two of them.

Going on a Big Year is an epic adventure, and not a decision to be taken lightly. The travel expenses and accommodation can mount up astronomically when you must travel all around New Zealand, often to some remote parts of the country and at short notice, when a rare bird had been sighted.

And it can play havoc with your social and family life. Luckily, Harry was blessed with a long-suffering girlfriend, Anita, who understood but did not share his passion.

On top of this, Harry faced some personal challenges. He has ADHD and dyslexia, so the methodical planning and patience on which such an adventure relies did not come easily to him. He also suffers from anxiety when driving and, to a lesser extent, when travelling on boats and planes. And he is terrified of spiders (arachnophobia). He had to overcome all of these if he was to do a Big Bird year. But he was determined to do it.

Harry was off to a flying start on his first day when at the top of the South Island, he was able to tick off almost 25% of his target birds. The rest of the year was a mix of pelagic (open sea) tours, meeting up with other birding friends who took him birdwatching and discovering rare birds on his own. As the months went by, he made excellent progress, but his rival was also scoring well, which spurred Harry on. It was obviously going to be a close race! But only one of them could be the winner!

Only a diehard twitcher (a birdwatcher who tries to spot as many rare varieties as possible and will travel long distances to do so) would rush off and drive for six hours to find a Pallid Cuckoo which had been sighted sitting on a rural fence post. And sitting by yourself in a dark forest, being eaten alive by mosquitoes waiting for the world’s rarest kiwi to appear, is not everyone’s idea of fun! While standing out in the blazing sun, looking up at the sky for hours to try to spot a White-throated Needletail is something only a mad and fanatical birder would do. But Harry’s persistence almost always paid off.

His biggest challenge was the weather. More of his pelagic (open boat) tours trips got cancelled than went ahead, and he started to get concerned about the many seabirds he was missing.

But then came the biggest hurdle of all! In August, there was a Covid lockdown, and he was imprisoned in Auckland for four months. This very seriously impeded his mission! He had no idea if his trips to the Subantarctic islands and the Chathams would be able to go ahead. When he was finally allowed to resume his travels, there were only 12 days left until the end of the year. It became a frantic race against time.

It would be a spoiler to tell who broke the record and who became the overall winner, Dave, or Harry. Suffice it to say that it was a nail-biting final.

After reading this thrilling tale with its many twists and turns, families may well be motivated to do some birdwatching themselves. It would not have to be a whole year; a Big Day would be a good start. For this, New Zealand’s Biggest Year, which is richly illustrated with photographs of the birds Harry saw and information about where he spotted them, would be the perfect book to have on hand.

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

John Beaufoy Publishing


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